Pakistani artist develops unique Urdu script to tell stories of the marginalized

Visitors look at paintings by Pakistani artist Ahmer Farooq during an exhibition on May 24, 2024, at Tanzara Gallery in Islamabad, Pakistan. (AN Photo)
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Updated 27 May 2024

Pakistani artist develops unique Urdu script to tell stories of the marginalized

  • Self-taught maestro Ahmer Farooq’s work has been displayed at shows across the UAE, US, UK and Germany
  • On a global scale, contemporary Pakistani art has largely been recognized for truck art and neo-miniature paintings

ISLAMABAD: Pakistani artist Ahmer Farooq, a self-taught maestro whose work has been displayed at shows across the UAE, US, UK and Europe, has developed a unique Urdu script in his latest collection to tell the stories of Pakistan’s diverse socio-cultural landscape and put a spotlight on its many marginalized communities. 

On a global scale, contemporary Pakistani art has largely been recognized for two movements: truck art and neo-miniature art. Kaleidoscopic murals of flowers, Islamic motifs, calligraphy, snow-capped Himalayan peaks, local mosques and popular figures are renowned examples of Pakistani truck art. Over time, the art form has extended beyond trucks and streets, and can now be seen on everything from shoes to teapots, with contemporary artists like Karachi-born and bred Haider Ali exhibiting their distinctive truck art style to museums and exhibitions across the world.

Similarly, neo-miniature art has been championed by the likes of Shahzia Sikander and Imran Qureshi, a new generation of Pakistani artists who have transformed the historical miniature painting from the Mughal courts into a contemporary art form. Recently, a painting by Pakistani figurative artist Salman Toor sold for a record $1.2 million and his work is now included in the permanent collection of Tate Modern, one of the largest museums of modern and contemporary art in the world.

Pakistani artist Ahmer Farooq photographed next to his work during an exhibition on May 24, 2024, at Tanzara Gallery in Islamabad, Pakistan. (AN Photo)

In the past two decades, the Pakistani artistic community has also encouraged a vital culture of public art through the advent of local biennials, most notably the Lahore Biennial, established in 2018, and the Karachi Biennial, which held its first edition in 2017.

Against this background, Farooq, a Lahore-based former business graduate, has taken it upon himself to share the narratives he believes are often silenced by conservative Pakistani society. From the voices of religious minorities to the transgender community and large swathes of the population facing poverty, Farooq’s brush strokes capture the “essence of resilience and defiance against the odds.”

“Ahmer’s work has a very, when you see it, these bold vibrant paintings, but they’re very, very deep,” said Noshi Qadir, the curator of the artist’s latest show at Islamabad’s Tanzara Gallery, held in collaboration with the Norwegian Embassy. 

“The way he navigates the topography of the canvas, portraying the sufferings, the triumphs and the emotions of humans and their identity. So it’s very deep, it’s very thought provoking.”

This time, Farooq’s work has a twist: as a secret keeper of Pakistan’s marginalized, as he likes to describe himself, and to exercise discretion about their very private triumphs and tribulations, he has developed a unique script in Urdu, Pakistan’s national language.

“When you would look at the canvas, you would see that the information or the text is not really readable,” Farooq said as he pointed to large stylized calligraphic alphabets on his colorful canvases. 

“And that’s done deliberately because for example, when you’re looking at an individual like a person here, standing here, you would only see a person, but you would not really know their story or what all they’re going through. This information is private information.”

A painting by Pakistani artist Ahmer Farooq displayed at an exhibition on May 24, 2024, at Tanzara Gallery in Islamabad, Pakistan. (AN Photo)

The use of a secret new language was because his latest collection was all about “the stories of marginalized communities” of Pakistan, the artist said:

“And the marginalized communities can be anyone, it can be religious marginalized communities, it could be people from the transgender community. It could be people like you and I, like who don’t fit into a certain norm which the society tells us to follow.”


Per Albert Ilsas, the Norwegian ambassador to Pakistan who inaugurated the collection entitled Archipelago of the Self, said Farooq’s “captivating” work explored the “complex interplay between personal and societal forces, expertly navigating the multifaceted nature of the Self.”

An archipelago, sometimes called an island group or island chain, is a chain, cluster, or collection of islands, or sometimes a sea containing a small number of scattered islands.

“Farooq’s art sheds light on the fragmented realities of marginalized individuals, illustrating the negotiating of public, private and secret selves. Farooq’s work, the emotional burden caried by those living on the margins — women, religious minorities, ethnic and other minorities — is palpable.”

The ambassador said each brush stroke spoke of the “anxiety and emotional turmoil inherent in navigating a world where one’s identity is constantly scrutinized and judged.”

Ahmer described the Self as a collection of archipelagos, or a “scattering of isolated islands amidst the relentless ties of societal currents” and said his latest collection was an invitation to enable the “courage, resilience and hope of building bridges that reconnect all our islands.”

Zainab Shuja, an art student from Rawalpindi visiting Farooq’s exhibition, reflected on the significance of experiencing Pakistani contemporary art firsthand:

“We don’t see much contemporary art because we’re being trained [in the classical tradition] right now, and it’s always good to go out and experience what Pakistani contemporary art looks like. And we see all those influences here, and it’s really refreshing to see.”

Jonathan Andre from the Swiss Embassy in Islamabad praised Farooq’s art for its authenticity, highlighting the power of art to transcend boundaries and foster understanding. 

“I think his art is very particular, very special, very authentic, very original,” he said. “And it’s great to see such an art scene in Pakistan to see a mix of culture with art and it translates very well in artworks.”

Pakistan’s ruling party, key ally to hold further talks to bridge budget differences

Updated 20 June 2024

Pakistan’s ruling party, key ally to hold further talks to bridge budget differences

  • Pakistan Peoples Party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz agree to form committees to resolve differences 
  • Bhutto-Zardari led PPP has accused government of ignoring its recommendations in federal budget

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s ruling party and one of its major coalition allies, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) on Thursday agreed to form committees to bridge their differences over the fiscal budget and other matters related to the allocation of development funds, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) said in a statement. 

Differences between the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the PPP parties arose last week when the government unveiled its much-awaited Rs18.877 trillion ($67.76 billion) federal budget for the fiscal year 2024-25 on Wednesday. 

The tax-heavy budget is expected to play a pivotal role in Pakistan’s negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a fresh financial assistance program with the global lender. The PPP alleged that the government did not take it into confidence regarding key aspects of the budget.

PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari called on Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif with a delegation of senior party leaders on Thursday to discuss the main points of contention between them, ahead of the key vote on the budget slated for next week. PPP lawmakers’ votes will be crucial for the government, without which it would not be able to pass the document. 

“All political parties have to work together for the country’s progress, prosperity and public welfare,” Sharif was quoted as saying in a handout issued by the PMO after the meeting concluded. 

The prime minister said the government has taken measures in the budget to provide relief to the common man.

“Further consultation will continue through the committees,” the statement said. 

It pointed out how Pakistan’s benchmark index rose to a historic high on Thursday, saying that it was proof that the budget had been validated by traders and investors. 

Pakistan’s benchmark share index rose 2.8 percent to a new record high on Thursday, as investors welcomed the budget since it avoided an anticipated increase in capital gains tax, despite an ambitious tax revenue target.

Pakistan’s parliament held a debate session on the budget after a hiatus of a week on Thursday. Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Omar Ayub described it as “economic terrorism.”

“This budget in actuality is economic terrorism against the people and the future of the country,” Ayub said. 


PPP lawmaker Sehar Kamran told Arab News earlier this week that the government had ignored her party in pre-budget consultations and wanted to use them as a “rubber stamp” in parliament to have the budget passed.

“Shehbaz Sharif’s government wants to use us as a rubber stamp in parliament to pass the budget, but we won’t do it if our reservations are not addressed,” Kamran said.

Kamran said the two parties also disagreed over the distribution of development funds and various projects related to Pakistan’s provinces.

The PPP, which voted Sharif into power after the contentious national election in February, is not part of the federal government but has its government in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province. 

“If the government needs our votes in parliament to pass the budget, then it will have to listen to us first to address our grievances,” she had said.

Baloch separatist outfit kidnaps 10 tourists in southwestern Pakistan

Updated 20 June 2024

Baloch separatist outfit kidnaps 10 tourists in southwestern Pakistan

  • All 10 persons, including Pakistan Customs official, hail from eastern Punjab province, says Levies official 
  • Banned outfit Balochistan Liberation Army, which has targeted Punjab-based laborers in past, claims responsibility

QUETTA: Separatist militant outfit Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) this week kidnapped 10 tourists in southwestern Pakistan who hailed from Punjab, an official of a local law enforcement force confirmed on Thursday.

The incident took place on Wednesday night at a famous tourist point named Shaban, 35 kilometers from the provincial capital of Quetta in southwestern Balochistan province, Levies official Ajmal Khan confirmed. 

Khan said around 50-60 armed men kidnapped 14 people from a rest house in Shaban. After checking their identification cards, four were released while 10 were detained, he revealed. 

“Ten people, including one Pakistan Customs personnel, belonging to Punjab were taken to an unknown place,” Khan, who is the head muharrar or person responsible for documentation at the Levies station in Harnai district where the incident took place, told Arab News. 

Khan said the BLA was responsible for the kidnapping, adding that the militant group had hoisted its flag atop the rest house. He said it is difficult for authorities to carry out a search operation as the area where the incident took place was a far-flung one. 

“Here BLA has camps and we have warned tourists to not come to this place,” the Levies official said. 

In a separate statement, BLA claimed responsibility for kidnapping the tourists. 

“In an intelligence-based operation in Quetta’s Shaban area, Balochistan Liberation Army’s Fatah Squad took into custody 10 suspicious persons,” the group stated. 

It said the detained persons were being questioned, adding that a detailed statement would be issued to the media “soon.” 

Pakistan’s restive Balochistan province, which shares porous borders with Afghanistan and Iran, has been wracked by an insurgency launched by ethnic Baloch militants since decades. 

These Baloch nationalists have long accused the Pakistani government and Punjab province of monopolizing profits from Balochistan’s abundant natural resources, saying it has led to political marginalization and economic exploitation.

However, Pakistani administrations have denied these allegations, citing several development initiatives launched in the province to improve local living conditions.

In April and May, three separate attacks in Balochistan targeted laborers from Pakistan’s Punjab province. A group of unidentified gunmen attacked and killed seven laborers in a residential quarter in Gwadar, a coastal town in Pakistan, on May 9. 

In April, the BLA claimed responsibility for the killings of nine Punjab residents traveling to Iran from Quetta. In another incident that took place in April, two workers from Punjab were targeted in Balochistan.

PM Sharif expresses condolences over Pakistani Hajj pilgrims’ deaths due to extreme heat

Updated 20 June 2024

PM Sharif expresses condolences over Pakistani Hajj pilgrims’ deaths due to extreme heat

  • Pakistani official this week confirmed nine pilgrims had died due to extreme heat in Saudi Arabia
  • Sharif directs authorities to make arrangements for pilgrims’ bodies to be brought to Pakistan

ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on Thursday expressed condolences over the deaths of multiple Pakistani Hajj pilgrims in Saudi Arabia due to the heat wave, his office said days after 1.5 million people performed the annual Islamic pilgrimage in the Kingdom.

A senior official of the Pakistan Hajj Mission (PHM) confirmed on Wednesday that nine Pakistani pilgrims had died in Saudi Arabia due to extreme heat as of June 18. 

“Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif expressed condolences over the martyrdom of Hajj pilgrims in Makkah,” the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) said in a statement.

“The prime minister prayed for patience for the relatives of the Hajj pilgrims.”

The PMO said Sharif spoke to Pakistan’s Deputy Prime Minister Ishaq Dar, Religious Affairs Minister Chaudhry Salik Hussain and Pakistan’s ambassador to the kingdom about the situation of the country’s Hajj pilgrims in Saudi Arabia.

“Arrangements should be made to send the bodies of the martyred pilgrims to Pakistan,” the prime minister told authorities, according to the PMO. It added that Sharif directed Pakistan’s religion ministry and consulate to provide all necessary facilities to the pilgrims.

He also directed Pakistani officials to ensure pilgrims admitted to hospitals in Saudi Arabia are provided access to every medical treatment, the PMO said.

Pakistan established two hospitals and 11 dispensaries in Makkah and Madinah to provide health care to the country’s pilgrims during the Islamic pilgrimage.

Hussain on Wednesday thanked Saudi authorities for ensuring “exemplary” arrangements for Hajj despite the sizzling heat in Saudi Arabia.

The Pakistani minister pointed out the Saudi authorities had taken several measures to mitigate the heat by setting up water sprinklers and a distribution system for cold water and beverages.

He also noted that mobile health units and dispensaries had been established in all the major areas to ensure the health of the pilgrims.

Pakistan stocks hit record high on budget, IMF optimism

Updated 20 June 2024

Pakistan stocks hit record high on budget, IMF optimism

  • Pakistan released tax-heavy budget last week which investors believe will strengthen case for new IMF bailout
  • Market breached 78,000 level for first time during intraday trade as it reopened after five-day break on Thursday

KARACHI: Pakistan’s benchmark share index rose 2.8 percent to a new record high on Thursday, driven by expectations last week’s budget will strengthen the case for a new bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

The government’s budget was welcomed by investors as it avoided an anticipated increase in capital gains tax, despite an ambitious tax revenue target.

The market extended its post-budget rally on Thursday when it reopened after a five-day break, which included a public holiday, and breached the key 78,000 level for the first time during intraday trade.

Foreign portfolio investment in the market is at the highest in almost ten years, with inflows of $83 million as of June 14, data compiled by Topline Securities and JS Global Capital showed.

Sohail Mohammed, CEO of Topline Securities, said that a statement from credit rating agency Fitch that the budget would strengthen the prospects for an IMF deal would help to bring more foreign inflows.

The benchmark share index is up 26.2 percent year to date and has almost doubled since Pakistan signed a nine-month standby arrangement with the IMF last summer.

“Pakistani equity investors are driving the PSX higher, continuing to unlock valuations on better sentiment, which is a trend that began when Pakistan signed its last IMF deal last summer,” said Amreen Soorani, head of research at JS Global Capital.

“The trend paused briefly on anticipation of stricter capital gains taxes, which did not materialize,” she said, adding that the index is trading at a four times price to earnings ratio despite the recent rally and offers attractive dividend yields.

The financial sector was up 4.4 percent, with banks like UBL, HBL, MCB, Bank Alfalah, Habib Metropolitan Bank, Allied Bank, up more than 4 percent.

Adnaan Sheikh, assistant vice president of research at Pak Kuwait Investment Company, said that foreign investor interest and the central bank’s decision to cut its key rate by 150 basis points last week — its first rate cut in nearly four years — had pushed the market up.

Apart from the capital gains tax, analysts said the budget and other revenue measures were in line with expectations and key to sealing a new IMF program. This will include a challenging tax target of a near-40 percent jump from the current year and a sharp drop in the fiscal deficit to 5.9 percent of GDP from 7.4 percent for the current year.

Sheikh said the strict budgetary measures to secure new IMF funding will be likely to attract more foreign investors to the market, in addition to the current inflows.

Pakistan’s lower house of parliament is set to meet later on Thursday to debate the budget that the government presented last week. 

PM Sharif hopes Pakistan’s disaster authority acts as ‘safety wall’ against climate change effects

Updated 20 June 2024

PM Sharif hopes Pakistan’s disaster authority acts as ‘safety wall’ against climate change effects

  • Sharif visits National Emergencies Operation Center that can anticipate disasters up to three months in advance
  • Pakistan is ranked fifth most vulnerable country to climate change globally, has suffered 10,000 deaths from 1999 to 2018

ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif hoped Pakistan’s disaster management authority would act as a “safety wall” against climate change effects, as he visited the revamped National Emergencies Operation Center (NEOC), a center that can predict climate disasters in advance, on Thursday. 

Set up in October last year, the NEOC is equipped with the latest tools and technologies, including real-time satellite feeds, to anticipate disasters up to three months in advance. Established at the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), its multidisciplinary team of experts harnesses the power of geographic information system (GIS), remote sensing, climatology, meteorology, seismology, hydrology, and data sciences to monitor and analyze global and local hazards.

Pakistan is ranked the fifth most vulnerable country to climate change globally, with nearly 10,000 deaths and $3.8 billion in economic losses between 1999 and 2018, according to the Global Climate Risk Index. 

Climate-induced rains and subsequent flooding in the 2022 monsoons submerged a third of the South Asian country, killing around 1,700 people and affecting more than 33 million — almost the entire population of Canada. The country is also beset by frequent heat waves and droughts.

“Due to climate change, Pakistan is in the red zone and among the top ten vulnerable countries,” Sharif said during a visit to the center with federal ministers and secretaries. 

“I have no doubt that the NDMA, in coordination with provincial PDMAs, will become a safety wall for Pakistan.”

The Pakistani prime minister asked NDMA to ensure close coordination with provinces and the Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir regions. 

“This is not an expenditure,” Sharif said. “This is an investment to save our future investments,” he remarked.”

Pakistan’s weather patterns have changed in recent years, forcing cities to strengthen their infrastructure and farmers to adapt their practices.

Analysts and government officials say Pakistan in recent years failed to achieve goals for economic growth because of man-made disasters, which have repeatedly hit the country in the form of droughts, heatwaves and heavy rains, which badly damaged the road network, bridges, power system and other infrastructure.